Mahanth S. Joishy is usindiamonitor
RRR directed by S.S. Rajamouli is two things at the same time. It is first of all an outstanding movie produced in India. And it is second of all, a worldwide blockbuster film phenomenon, worthy of a screening no matter where you live in the world and what your background is. At minimum on that second count, it deserves to be in the conversation as the biggest worldwide film phenomenon to emerge out of India in the nation’s entire rich film history.
This movie had the gargantuan budget, the special effects, the story, the acting chops and superstar power (refreshingly led by a SOUTH INDIAN duo NT Rama Rao Jr & Ram Charan), the cinematography, the meticulous period piece costuming, the stunning action sequences, and most importantly of all the raw guts. I went in expecting little from this movie, and was sincerely blown away from beginning to end. In fact, I was pleasantly shocked at how good this movie was, most unexpectedly of all how good the story was. Story writing is and always has been Bollywood’s biggest weakness. Yes, it also tugged on my heart strings (and I almost cried at two points) powerfully and this was even more unanticipated as I went into this movie available on Netflix knowing very little about it. And what little I knew about it, I suspected it might be another preachy Indian patriotic movie that wants to corral you into a thought-free pen of how to think about history. There’s too much of that going on in Indian media forms including fiction. But it was not that at all.
These combined attributes put RRR in elite company and the most rarefied of airs, indeed. Big win for Indian cinema and its future prospects! Other projects that come to mind are pure and timeless legend, such as the Academy Award-winning Gandhi released in 1982. But that movie was really an effort led by Americans and Brits that was filmed in India with mostly Indian actors. RRR is Bollywood at the root DNA level through and through, and much of that which is great about Bollywood without all the Bollywood downsides dragging it down too far. There is music and dance, but not too much. What a relief; it felt like just the right amount and that’s a lesson I wish more Bollywood directors would learn. The movie is too long by perhaps half an hour, but that is offset by the high quality of that extra screen time. There is overt patriotism, but it is complicated and nuanced enough to make it interesting. There are loathsome, cruel and outright criminal English characters played by some C-list white actors who over-acted quite dramatically, which I partly also blame on the directors. However, Bollywood doesn’t tend to get good white actors. Sorry, whoever you guys are who hammed it up. It was the most glaring weakness of the film, besides one other.
We were doing swimmingly well, shockingly well even, all the way till the end of the movie when the Hindu nationalism stuff emerged with a mighty roar- though it was no surprise. A roar that no doubt swelled the hearts of many Hindus around the world with pride and joy. My particular Hindu heart was cringing hard at this juncture. It simply was not necessary, even though it was aesthetically beautiful. I love patriotism. I love Hinduism. I very much dislike when the two get mixed into an awkward cocktail, however- and this is exactly where the film ended up a bit off the rails in my opinion, but not far enough off the rails to take away from the greatness of the overall phenomenon.
This cocktail I mention is very dangerous for India as an origin story for India’s present and also future- it even has the makings of a figurative Molotov cocktail, though not so much for outsiders. In fact, most non-Indian non-Hindus will not even catch all the Hindu references and parallels at the end, simply because they don’t know of them. But non-Hindu Indian minorities in particular will recognize the signals, and that’s not ideal (Americans: picture portraying that America was started by George Washington riding on a horse into battle against the British Redcoats with Jesus Christ behind him on the same horse, one arm around Washington’s torso, the other wielding a cross as a weapon- now you get my drift). I still argue it was unnecessary and gratuitous, as a believer that the separation of church and state should itself be sacred.
However, the overall positives of this film outweigh the negatives. I’ll bring up another positive in conclusion. I cannot think of a better “buddy movie” made in any language, period. None. This is the best one you’ll be able to find.
RRR is a microcosm of India in all its glory and all its unfulfilled potential. To me, that means there is opportunity on both counts. There are few films ever made in Indian history that deserve the billing of rising above the level of just another movie- into a legitimate phenomenon. I welcome you to judge for yourself. I plan to watch a second time myself.